Right now, Prince Charles is probably wishing he had hit the slopes after all. Britain's Prince of Wales decided last year to begin reducing his carbon footprint--the amount of carbon dioxide created by his activities--by cutting down on his flights abroad, including an annual skiing vacation in Switzerland. Though we should all be in the position to make such sacrifices, Charles didn't win plaudits for his holiday martyrdom. Instead British green groups, seconded by Environment Secretary David Miliband, spanked the Prince for deciding to fly to the U.S. on Jan. 27 to pick up a prestigious environmental award, arguing that the carbon emissions created by his travel canceled out his green cred.
It's too easy to mock His Royal Highness; in England it's practically the national sport. But his critics may be onto something. Jets are uniquely polluting, and the carbon they emit at high altitudes appears to have a greater warming effect than the same amount of carbon released on the ground by cars or factories. On an individual level, a single long-haul flight can emit more carbon per passenger than months of SUV driving. Though air travel is responsible for only 1.6% of total greenhouse gas emissions, according to one estimate, in many countries it's the fastest-growing single source--and with annual airline passengers worldwide predicted to double to 9 billion by 2025, that growth is unlikely to abate. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) put it bluntly last year: "The growth in aviation and the need to address climate change cannot be reconciled."
One of the biggest problems, as the IPCC points out, is that the carbon emitted by air travel currently has "no technofix." As messy a source of pollution as electricity generation and ground transportation are, technologies do exist that could drastically cut carbon from power plants and cars. Not so for planes: the same aircraft models will almost certainly be flying on the same kerosene fuel for decades.
Admittedly, the airline industry has improved efficiency over the past 40 years, with technological upgrades more than doubling efficiency. There are tweaks in aircraft operations that could nip carbon emissions even further. Virgin Atlantic airlines tycoon Richard Branson, who last year pledged $3 billion in the fight against climate change, advocates having planes towed on the ground rather than taxiing, which he has said could cut a yet unspecified portion of fuel on long flights. Emissions trading for the air industry could help as well, with airlines given carbon caps and then being required to purchase credits from other industries if they exceed their limits. But there's nothing on the horizon for aircraft with the carbon-cutting potential of hydrogen engines or solar energy. "It's not like having leaky home windows you can fix with double glazing," says Leo Murray, a spokesman for the straightforwardly named green group Plane Stupid, which led the criticism of Prince Charles.